The Way Things Go: An Homage ★★★★
Butler Gallery, Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny
Some 30 years ago, two Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, set up an experiment in a warehouse. Using bits and pieces, including plastic water jugs, car tyres, wooden ramps and bin bags, they made the most brilliant chain-of-motion movie that veers from quirky and amusing to surprisingly suspenseful. Will the pendulum hit its mark? Will the fire burn out before it sets off the next reaction? It was remarkably influential, even to the point of inspiring a Honda commercial so closely that the artists took action against the ad agency.
Beyond that, and beyond the laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are many, the film also gets you thinking about action and consequences, simplicity and complexity, as well as celebrating improvisation and invention. No wonder artists love it. To acknowledge the film’s anniversary, the Butler commissioned six artists to make work in response, or as they put it: homage.
Existing pieces by Maggie Madden, Liam O'Callaghan and Isabel Nolan also feature in an intriguing, fun show that made me think there is hope, both for the art world, and for art in the world.
Dublin-based Japanese artist Atushi Kaga’s specially constructed vestibule welcomes you to the show. It would be easy to walk past, despite its bright colours and plenty of glitter, as you’re already anxious to see what’s going on beyond. But stop and explore the little worlds of hope and despair, and the idea of the impossibility of love, even as we cling to it like a raft in the turbulent waters of life.
A stand out is Caroline McCarthy's Mansize (2017). Reading the information panel, initially my heart sank: "a feature length video of tissues being plucked one by one from their box . . ." Imagine. But wait, here's a masterclass in what art can do. Just as Picasso once wrote that "art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life", art can also turn the dust of everyday life into something that sings. Watch in wonder as McCarthy's film shows tissues becoming, briefly, epic sublime mountains, rising to snowy peaks before the imaginary land flattens, and the process begins again.
Liam O'Callaghan's Hold Together (2008) is an improbably balanced, jury-rigged cascade of large industrial clamps, pliers, clothespegs and bulldog clips. It pulls off that nice beauty-from-grit thing, and also does a good line in reminding us of our place in the scheme of things, and the importance of holding on.
Isabel Nolan's set of six black and white photographs The Provisory Rug adapted and documented for past, present and future (2014) gets a little lost. There's a lot of referential detail in the subtitles for the images, and you kind of feel you need a bit of googling, or a very knowledgeable friend, to get the most out of it. Anyway, Fischli and Weiss's video is right beside, to pull your attention away.
What else? Hannah Fitz, who was a star in Kerlin's recent emerging talent show, shows great wit and proves she's an artist to watch, while Nevan Lahart goes to town with a massive painting that could almost be a Hieronymus Bosch for the 21st century.
The Butler always handles installation and pacing perfectly. Does that matter? Yes it does. Here, Aideen Barry's and so it goes (2017) is a perfect coda to an excellent ensemble. A mixture of drawing and animation, her work shows that there are indeed consequences, but there's also endless busyness and effort: all of human endeavour, distilled on the wall.
- Butler Gallery, Kilkenny Castle, Kilkenny. Until October 15th. butlergallery.com
What's the Story? ★
Crawford Art Gallery
A challenge for curators at art museums, whose collections go back beyond the contemporary, can be how to make the works relevant to us now. Sure, we’ll always love a Lavery, and horses and dogs go down a treat, but history painting is a different matter. These are those historical or allegorical canvases that, unless we happen to be experts, can leave us cold, locked out of the layers of symbolism and meaning that, to audiences in their own time, would have been both apparent and resonant. In a pre-mass-literacy era, pictures were propaganda, and painters in the pay of the powerful toed the line but could introduce subtle subversive elements.
That's why the Crawford Gallery's What's the Story? seems such a good idea. Its premise is to take the idea of truth "in an age of alternative facts" and use visual art as a focus for engaging with deeper truths and authenticity. "If we are to continue to acknowledge the importance of factual accuracy," goes the text, "questioning the verbal and visual information we receive, as well as the manner in which it is packaged, is essential." This is all good, the problem is that you don't get a great deal more than that here.
In the landing area at the top of Crawford's lovely old staircase, there's a Daniel Maclise, an Alfred Elmore – and the likes. But with little additional information, we're still left to wonder what the "facts" we're supposed to be questioning may be, and are left as locked out as before. In fact, the exhibition goes beyond history painting, and includes some beauties that came via the AIB Collection in 2012. Jack B Yeats's A Race in Hy Brazil (1937) is there, as is Patrick Collins's Bog Country (1970). Hy Brazil is mythical, boglands are real, but I'm still not getting where the challenge to the shaping of history is. I don't want to be led by the nose, but I do want some more help.
On the subject of bogs, it's interesting to see the different treatments Collins, Tim Goulding and Anne Madden give to the material that makes up 16 per cent of the Irish landscape, yet, again, I'm left wondering to what extent these are aiding me in "separating truth from untruth".
Sometimes the adjacent labels are of the usual variety: artist, title, date, medium. Sometimes there's a little description of what you're actually looking at, and occasionally there's more. I do learn that John Lavery's gorgeous portrait, The Red Rose (1923), was one of about 400 he made of his wife, Hazel. And that even though that's a daunting number, Lavery was promiscuous with his muses. The Red Rose was begun as Mrs William Burrell, then transformed into Sarah Bernhardt, and was the Viscountess Curzon for a while, before ending up as Hazel. I don't know what the available scholarship is, but it would be so intriguing to discover whether these changes were due to the changing whims of patrons, or temper tantrums on the part of the artist – or indeed his wife.
At the moment What's the Story? reads more like The Crawford Gallery's Greatest Hits, which is nice, but little more than an excuse for a rehang of the collection. The exhibition is ongoing, so there's plenty of time for it to be given additional resources, and for the Crawford to create an exhibition that truly matches up to the fascinating curatorial promise.
- Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork. crawfordartgallery.ie